With so many wonderful vistas to choose from, it’s difficult to pick the very best places to visit in France, but it’s worth a shot. Here’s just a starting point to see some of France’s best spots.
Wherever you travel in l’Hexagone, there are many top places to visit in France. The top French cities offer a plethora of ways to dive into France’s tourism, from cosmopolitan, buzzing cities and gourmet top French foods to rural medieval towns and natural wonders that take you back in time.
Travelling around France you will quicky find many top attractions outside the French capital of Paris, from tracing France’s royal history in the castles of Loire Valley or indulging in the gourmet capital of Lyon. No matter which French cities you choose, France’s tourism offers a taste of everything. Here are the best places to visit in France.
Europe’s largest flea market in Lille
Back in medieval times, manservants came here once a year to sell their masters’ cast-off clothes and belongings. Today, on the first weekend of September, stallholders from all over Europe sell anything and everything in a flea market stretching along 100km (around 62 miles) of Lille’s pavements, as part of the Braderie de Lille. Various running races take place around Lille and there’s a huge funfair too. When you’re done, enjoy the classic Lille meal: a bowl of moules frites – mussels and chips (French fries) – and a glass of local beer.
Outside of the market period, the historic centre (Vieux Lille) and its flamboyant 17th-century architecture, squares and grand museums make this underrated city in north France worth a visit.
The ‘Wonder of the West’
Le Mont Saint-Michel is a rocky island that soars up from the sea in a grand bay of the same name between Brittany and Normandy; on a misty morning the island seems to appear in the sky itself. Benedictine monks settled here in the 10th century and over time an abbey, church, fortifications and a village were all built. It was used as a prison during the French Revolution but today is home once more to a religious community.
You can reach the island via a causeway and even though the tides in the bay are among the highest recorded in Europe, you can always walk across to the UNESCO World Heritage ‘Wonder of the West’.
Bordeaux: France’s wine capital
The elegant and sophisticated city of Bordeaux is a top French city for chic shopping, excellent wining and gourmet dining, and a plethora of historical monuments, buildings and squares to explore on foot. This French city is located in the coastal Gironde area in southwestern France, with Bordeaux situated right on the Garonne river. Climb up the twisting steps of the Tour Pey-Berland by the cathedral for exhilarating views of the city.
Wine buffs will also enjoy visiting the vineyards surrounding Bordeaux that produce some of the greatest (and most expensive) wines in the world. Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour and other Premier Grand Crus Classé (A) wines from St Émilion are just a few of the big names.
One of the top things to do in Bordeaux is visit, sample and buy local French direct from the surrounding Bordeaux wineries; see the Bordeaux tourism board’s guide.
The land that time forgot: the Auvergne
Right in the middle of France are the forested volcanic mountains and valleys of the Massif Central in the Auvergne. Apart from the city of Clermont Ferrand, it is a sparsely populated, sleepy place that time seems to have passed by. You can hike, ski or hot air balloon over its peaks of up to 2km (7000ft) high or explore the many Romanesque churches and historic castles in the area. The ancient volcanoes have created thermal spas and mineral waters – this is where your Vichy, Badoit and Volvic water comes from.
It’s hearty fare rather than nouvelle cuisine here: try the cheese (Cantal and St Nectaire), charcuterie (prepared meats), river fish and cêpes mushrooms.
Sur le pont – and everywhere else – in d’ Avignon
For three weeks every July, the entire city of Avignon in Provence becomes one huge stage with some 60 different contemporary theatre productions (both French and non-French, many of them world premiers) and thousands of performing arts professionals. The Avignon Festival has been going since 1947 and, like the Edinburgh Festival in the UK, is divided into two parts: the main festival (the ‘On’) and the fringe (the ‘Off’). For this year’s programme, see www.festival-avignon.com. Outside of the theatre, visit the 17th–18th-century mansions, churches and museums of Palais des Papes and the famous Saint Bénezet bridge.
Avignon is also a great jumping point to see the swaying purple lavendar fields of Provence.
The villages of the Luberon
In the heart of Provence in southern France you’ll find an area called the Luberon. It has undulating vineyards and orchards, fields with rows of lavender and some of the most charming ‘perched’ medieval villages in the whole of France, with views stretching across to the slopes of Mont Ventoux and the plateau of the Vaucluse. This is a top place to see archetypal, rural France with cobbled streets, stone houses with painted shutters and where the film classics Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were made.
Some top places to visit in Provence include Bonnieux, Menerbes, Gordes, the ‘red’ village of Rousillon with its red, orange, yellow and pink buildings, and the famous Sunday antiques market in L’Isle sur la Sorgue.
A ride round Paris
For once, you can believe the hype: Paris really is one of the most wonderful cities in the world. Pick up (and drop off) a cheap rental Vélib‘ bike from one of hundreds of stations across the city. On Sundays, certain roads are closed to traffic so nervous cyclists can cycle without fear, and as the centre of Paris is quite flat even those in less than perfect shape can whizz along the banks of the Seine from Notre Dame, past the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay to the Eiffel Tour in minutes. Hilly Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur might take a little more pedal power.
Besides the top places to visit in Paris, you can stop for a bagel in the Jewish quarter, shop upmarket in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré district, or hang out in the hip and gay-friendly Marais.
Strasbourg has been part of the Holy Roman Empire, the German Empire and, now, it’s the official seat of the European Parliament, conveniently situated in the Alsace region in northeastern France near the German border. Strasbourg’s historic centre that sits on an island in the river Ill is exceptionally picturesque. Black and white, half-timbered riverfront houses in the La Petite-France and the Gothic masterpiece Notre-Dame cathedral (check out the astronomical clock) have earned Le Grande Île, as it’s called, UNESCO World Heritage status – the first city centre to be entirely included on the list. The ornate medieval Kammerzell House and the city’s numerous museums are also worth a look.
You won’t go hungry here: Alsace has more Michelin starred restaurants than another region in France outside Paris, as well as local taverns called winstubs where you can feast on Alsatian specialities such as sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), baeckeoffe (a meat and potato dish) and fois gras.
France’s answer to the Grand Canyon
Les Gorges du Verdon, the Verdon Gorge, is a spectacular limestone canyon lying between the Alpes-de-haute-Provence and the Var in south-east France, as well as one of the. Up to 700m (just under half a mile) deep and about 25 km (15 miles) long, with the turquoise waters of the Verdon river careering along the bottom, it’s a wild and stunningly beautiful place to visit in France. A route around the rim of the canyon is just over 100km (62 miles), with the most impressive section lying between Castellane and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.
You can kayak or raft, fish, hike around, climb up and across the gorge – there are hundreds of different routes – or just admire from the top.
Artists came to St Tropez in the 19th century; Left Bank intellectuals (and Brigitte Bardot) came in the 1950s. Since then the tiny fishing port of St Tropez on the French Riviera on the Côte d’Azur has grown into the playground of some of the world’s richest people and celebrities. Yet the town still manages to retain its original charm if you visit out of the high season. Vast gleaming white, multimillion-dollar yachts somehow squeeze themselves into the tiny picturesque harbour edged with cafes, restaurants, shops and impressive art galleries, while old men still play boules in the Place des Lices.
You can bake yourself on the Pampelonne beaches, explore the rocky St Tropez peninsula, visit nearby hilltop villages like Ramatuelle, or people watch on the waterside.